» New proposals for light rail connections to LAX put in question whether an extension project will offer any major benefits.
Of the nation’s largest cities, Los Angeles is one of the remaining few with no direct rail connection to its airport.* Over the past two decades, L.A. County has expanded its Metro Rail network considerably, but the closest it has gotten to a station at its largest airport — LAX — is a stop about a mile away from terminals on the Green Line light rail service, which does not reach downtown and requires customers to make a connection to a surface bus to get to and from check-in areas.
According to current plans, that will change in the next few decades. Metro dedicated $200 million to a light rail connector in its Measure R spending packaged passed by voters in 2008. The agency began studying potential direct links from its Green Line and the future Crenshaw Corridor, which will offer light rail in a corridor relatively close to the airport. In March, Metro revealed the initial results of the study, demonstrating that a rail connection would carry between 4,000 and 6,000 riders a day and cost between $600 million and $1.5 billion. Metro continues to study how best to connect the airport: With a rail branch line; with a re-routing of the rail corridor in a tunnel under the terminals; or with a connection to a new automated people mover or bus rapid transit line circulating around the airport. A locally preferred alternative for the corridor is to be selected in 2013 or 2014.
But new documents from L.A.’s airport authority put in question how feasible any airport-rail link would be. The agency offers three general locations for a light rail stop, two of which would include a branch of the Green Line or Crenshaw Corridor and require most customers to switch to the airport’s people mover, and the third of which would provide no additional light rail service at all. None would offer direct service from downtown.** Is this rail connection worth the massive investment in transit funding that consensus suggests is necessary?
The fundamental difficulty is that the airport authority — Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) — seems awfully reluctant to allow trains into the main terminal area. While Metro’s spring proposals suggest a light rail loop, an elevated line, or an underground tunnel directly adjacent to the central areas of the nine-terminal complex, the closest LAWA is willing to come is an “on-airport” station at the far eastern edge of the terminals area (see image (1) below). A station there, built as an extension of the Crenshaw Corridor, would be more than a half-mile from the international terminal at the western edge of the complex. Yes, light rail would get customers closer to check in areas, but few would be within comfortable distance walking, particularly with heavy bags.
The same is true of LAWA’s second proposal (see (2) below), which would extend light rail from the Crenshaw Corridor as a branch to a new intermodal transportation facility. Customers arriving here would have no ability to walk to any terminals.
In both cases, LAWA proposes a new people mover that would allow for the final connection between the light rail stations and the terminals themselves. The people mover would operate in a loop around the eight terminals, then extend to the intermodal facility, pass by the Crenshaw Corridor station planned for the intersection of Century and Aviation Boulevards (about a mile from the airport entrance), and terminate at a consolidated rental car facility.
From the airport’s perspective, there are solid reasons to support the construction of such a people mover. It would improve the connectivity between terminals for non-”transit”-using airport passengers and it would decrease road congestion by eliminating rental car and public buses from the areas in front of the terminals.
But these proposals effectively duplicate light rail and people mover services, requiring passengers to use both no matter the circumstances. Certain of Metro’s proposals — albeit the more expensive ones — would have allowed customers direct service to terminals on light rail, which would have resulted in significant travel time savings due to the lack of transfers. Here, those direct links have been eliminated from the discussion. Why spend public funds on two similar rail services operating in the same corridor?
If we are to take it as a given that LAWA absolutely must have a people mover and that it is reluctant to allow light rail into the main terminals area, its third proposal (see (3) below) comes across as more appealing. The light rail station at Crenshaw and Aviation, on the main trunk of the Crenshaw Corridor, would provide a bridged transfer to the people mover system, which would then offer a link to all of the airport’s terminals.
Yet this proposal also has its downsides. LAWA’s visual description of the proposed connection suggests that light rail customers would have to ascend an escalator, cross a broad boulevard on an elevated bridge, then descend an escalator, to get to the people mover. It is certainly possible to envision a more convenient approach to making this connection. Every step that makes using transit easier attracts an additional customer.
Nonetheless, this approach, which would keep light rail services within the already-funded Crenshaw Corridor, has the added benefit of ensuring adequate frequency on the light rail line. The branch corridors proposed by the first and second options would, in effect, split rail service in two: Half the trains might extend to LAX, with the rest heading in the other direction. In the case of the Green Line, assuming that headways — currently 7.5 minutes at peak — remain the same (which would not be surprising considering the relatively small number of riders expected to actually use the airport connection), splitting the service in two would reduce peak headways to just every 15 minutes. Is that acceptable for rapid transit service? Or will such low headways make it impossible to attract “choice” riders?
Providing people mover service from the main line light rail corridor would guarantee that all users of the Crenshaw Corridor have one-transfer service to all of the airport’s terminals. And indeed, the whole concept of direct light rail service to an airport like LAX may not make much sense. Unlike smaller airports with only one or two terminals or very centralized airports (like Washington Dulles, with one main entrance facility), LAX has many terminals spread across a large area, making one or even two stops too dispersed; more stops, however, would be too expensive to construct for a light rail line. It shares these features with New York’s JFK and Phoenix, for example, both of which have chosen the rail-to-people mover approach that comes across as most reasonable in L.A.’s case.
Requiring passengers to transfer to a people mover from the trunk of the light rail line has the added benefit of putting the onus of financing the rail connection in the hands of the (relatively more wealthy) airport authority, rather than Metro. This is perhaps the most important point of all. Though Metro has allocated $200 million to this project, it would need far more than that to complete the branch extensions envisioned in the first or second proposal presented above. But the third proposal, which would build off the already funded Crenshaw Corridor using only the airport-desired people mover, could — and should — be funded by LAWA, perhaps with only a small contribution from Metro. This would allow the transit authority to avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that would benefit few passengers and force the airport’s users, the people who would be using the rail-airport connection, to pay for it.
* Other than L.A., Detroit, Houston, and San Diego are the biggest metropolitan areas with no rail connections to their respective airports. Atlanta, Baltimore,
Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Providence, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington all offer rail connections of some kind to at least one of their airports. Boston does not have a rail connection but has the BRT Silver Line to the airport. Dallas and Salt Lake City will be adding connections in 2014 and 2013, respectively.
** Downtown-to-airport rail service may be addressed sometime in the future if funds can be assembled for regional rail operations on the Harbor Subdivision, as some have proposed.